Structuring Street Dance

A group of New York City subway dancers joins forces with Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula

Story and photos by Diana Hubbell

At a community center deep in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a crew of 22 men are hurtling through a heated basketball game set to a pounding hip-hop soundtrack. No one is keeping score, but the players are dripping sweat as they leap, lunge, and sprint up and down the court. Though most athletes possess a kinetic awareness, the members of these teams move with unusual feline speed and grace. When the mood strikes, one breaks off from the pack and begins to move in time to the rhythm. Another picks up the beat and mimics the first one’s motions. Despite the impromptu nature of the dance, both move in perfect harmony, until another player dribbles past and both plunge back into the game.

While it may not look like it at first glance, this free-form ball game is part of the vision of the renowned Congolese choreographer, Faustin Linyekula. With a gray shirt draped loosely over his wiry frame, he observes from a corner, mutely recording the scene with a video camera. On the nearby table, there’s a copy of this week’s New York Times Arts & Culture section with a glowing write-up of his performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend. Here, Linyekula is watching members of It’s Showtime NYC, a city-sponsored program that offers New York’s subway dancers a legitimate platform to showcase their talents. The group has teamed up with Linyekula to collaborate on two performances, one in the streets of the Bronx and the other in Brooklyn.

Unlike the tightly choreographed work on display at the vaunted Met, the movements for the work Linyekula is making for public performances by subway dancers, come from the group’s improvisations, whether or not they conform to conventional conceptions of dance.

“Anything we do freely as a group, he takes it,” explains participant Rhea “Wiildcard” Nance. “Sometimes he gets inspired and says, ‘Let’s use that!’ He incorporated the basketball into his philosophy of how to create the structure and how to create the dance space.”

Structure is exactly the point. “They don’t need me to learn how to dance,” Linyekula says. Self-taught, the group members draw on urban dance styles such as the rapid series of contortions called flexing or bone breaking and the lightning-fast footwork called litefeet, and each gives the style his own signature spin. What Linyekula and his South African co-choreographer Moya Michael do provide is a scaffolding on which to build an expressive, coherent group performance that incorporates all their styles while staying true to the free-form essence of the genre.

“The reason we asked Faustin is he’s very good at taking stories and forms and elements and weaving them into a narrative,” says Simon Dove, Executive & Artistic Director of Dancing in the Streets, the parent organization backing the initiative.

Linyekula elaborates: “It’s really about creating a frame where something can happen. They are negotiating the presence of a frame which is imposed upon them, but finding freedom within this structure.” That freedom and spontaneity will give the piece its soul.

For Linyekula, the first step to working with any group is to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, then find ways to incorporate them into a larger vision. That’s why on this, the fifth of only nine days of rehearsals for creating the piece, he is still watching from the sidelines, seeming to withhold his expertise. Only after hours of filming and observing how the dancers move naturally does Linyekula begin to establish his overarching structure.

Two days later he has apparently found it: he’s a blur of action. He splits the crew into two groups, then proceeds to improvise catches, rolls, and other movements along with them, before standing back to direct the crew.

“You’re not sheep! You are strong personalities. You choose to join somoene else or you choose to do your own style,” Linyekula tells the group. As the dancers begin to organize into small groups and transform their movements into a cohesive piece, he offers bits of advice: Don’t introduce more than three kinds of movements simultaneously, don’t focus solely on the center of the space, listen to one another’s bodies. And he provides one clear caveat. “The thing about rules is that you can break them,” he says, then adds with a sly grin. “Unless you go to jail.”

The dancers laugh, but there’s a serious undertone to the wisecrack. A number of these performers have been picked up by police for practicing their art in the streets and subways of New York where it first originated. In 2016 alone, the police department made 203 arrests for subway dancing.

Though Linyekula hails from Kisangani, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of miles and a world apart from Brooklyn, dance proves a fertile common ground for cross-cultural communication. Over the course of their brief, but intense time together, he uses a combination of humor and his own pointed insight to propel the team forward.

“Listen to him! He has something to say,” Linyekula says, pointing to Klassic, who is sliding through the middle of an impromptu solo off to the side. “Space is a political thing. The center is not always in one place. You can decide to do your most beautiful dance, your most important dance anywhere.”

The dancers nod and reshuffle accordingly. Linyekula’s background may be entirely different from the rest of the crew, but years of collaborating with performers from everywhere from his home country to France to Austria to the United States has given him a knack for transcending cultural barriers and tackling all sorts of situations.

Situations do arise here. Near the start of the process, an argument broke out that cost the group precious time.

“The next day when we had rehearsal again, Faustin and Moya implemented an activity that had us work together and we did it perfectly,” Wiildkard says. “Maybe we just need a little structure. Or maybe we just need someone who we trust to look us in the eye and say, ‘I know you can do it.’”

The level of trust and mutual respect is what ultimately helps the dancers to think strategically about their work, a development that Linyekula hopes will continue long after he leaves.

“Just over the last couple of days with Faustin, he’s taught us a lot about ourselves,” Wiildkard says. “We’ve been looking inwards to think about some of the issues we face and about how much dance means to us and how it shapes us.”

Both Linyekula’s discipline and confidence to allow the performers to excel in their own ways have left a striking impression. “I like his structure, because it’s unstructured. And it’s the way I think street dance should be in the first place,” Wiildkard says. “If you structure it too much, then you don’t leave room for creativity and you can’t get this magic that he was able to bring out of us.”

That spirit manifests in the group’s explosive Brooklyn performance the following weekend, which incorporates all manner of movements within the context of a loose three-part structure that offers each individual the chance to shine. At the core of the performance, the 23 dancers form a circle and chant and stomp the earth while taking turns showing off their moves in the spotlight. Spectators of all ages seem to be swept up by the infectious energy — at one point, a toddler is so entranced that she wanders away from her parents into the middle of the dance. Rather than shoo the child away, one of the performers, crawls down to her level and begins to interact with her movements, inviting her to join. Straight-up magic like this cannot be planned, but it can be choreographed.